Another August, another war scare. Intermittent reports of Russian military forces “staging” near Ukraine. Are the guns about to honor the title of a famous history book once again?
Almost certainly not. Or at least, not by Russia’s hand.
(1) Though you could play a drinking time for every mention of “Gleiwitz” in conjunction with the recent terrorist incidents in Crimea, no evidence has since been furnished in support of the theory that Russia set the whole thing up. As Alexander Mercouris points out, the Ukrainian counter-allegation that the shootout was the result of drunk friendly fire and that Evgeny Panov, the ringleader of the plot, had been abducted from Ukraine to play the role of scapegoat is “too fantastic for anyone to take seriously.”
(2) The Russian version of events – that there were two shootouts with Ukrainian sabotage teams, during which an FSB officer and a Russian Airborne Troops soldier were killed – remains the most self-consistent and credible one to date. Elements of the Maidanist Ukrainian elites have ample reasons to mount such an operation, including: (a) Spoiling the Crimean tourist season; (b) Disrupting the forthcoming elections in Crimea; (c) Remedying the decidedly embarassing lack of “native” Crimean resistance to the so-called “Russian occupation”; (d) Reigniting Western interest in Ukraine, which has been slacking off lately (see below).
(3) Although there has been some tough rhetoric from Russia after the incident – Putin talked of Ukraine “resorting to the practice” of terror – nothing much has since come of it apart from Russia cancelling the next round of Normandy Four talks scheduled for September in China. Otherwise, diplomatic relations with Ukraine aren’t even getting cancelled, a possibility that was mooted by Izvestia in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. All in all, this has been an extremely milquetoast response to terrorist attacks organized out of a hostile neighboring country, for which Putin has been excoriated by Russian nationalists. “The “war with the junta” has been postponed for an indefinite period,” Igor Strelkov complained, pointing out that the Kremlin now seems to be more concerned with Syria instead of the plight of the Donbass under Ukrainian bombings. “Putin saved the Syrians. And is prepared to save them further. Together with the “cursed pindosy” and “Turkish backstabbers”… that is, “dear friends.” Hard to keep track of these things. But what’s the difference, in the end? The main goal, after all, is to save Syrians.”
(4) The 40,000 Russian troops – a consistently familiar figure throughout the past two years – that have been claimed to be at Ukraine’s border are not enough for a proper invasion. Stratfor estimated that Russia would need about 30,000 personnel to seize the “land corridor” to Crimea, though that was back in early 2015 when the Ukrainian Armed Forces were much weaker. The much cited recent Institute for the Study of War map purporting to display Russian military dispositions as of August 12 shows that at best only half that number is present on the requisite front.
(5) The Saker might claim that “Ukronazi attack against Novorussia would be exceedingly unlikely to succeed” and even that “Novorussians are capable of not only stopping a Ukronazi attack, but even of an operationally deep counter-attack,” but people who are actually on the ground seem to disagree. For instance, here is what Alexander Zhuchkovsky, an NVF insider and generally reliable source, has to say about that: “I am a big patriot of the DNR and our Armed Forces, but one has to be objective. It’s clear to everyone that without Russia’s help we will not be able to last even a week against the Ukrainian Armed Forces, if they throw all their forces against the LDNR. Not because we are worse than they are (we’re better), but simply because the correlation of forces are against us.” At its core, the NVF remains a militia (opolchenie); a very well armed and trained militia, to be sure, possibly even the world’s most powerful one, but a militia nonetheless – good in defense, but not much of a factor in any truly large-scale offensive operations, and outnumbered 40,000 to 250,000.
(6) Some of the conspiracy theories have revolved around the idea that Putin is plotting a war to raise United Russia’s ratings in the forthcoming parliamentary elections: “He constantly needs a series of quasi-wars to keep the pro-Putin majority mobilized,” according to an analyst at the Moscow Carnegie Center. Such ideas are based on a fundamental misreading of the Russian economy and society – namely, that living standards have collapsed due to the sanctions and that the Putin system is in crisis (which one can creatively tie in with recent political reshufflings, such as the replacement of Sergey Ivanov with Anton Vaino as head of the Presidential Administration). In reality, the recession has been mild, at least so far as recessions go; it has almost certainly either ended or is close to ending; and according to opinion polls, United Russia faces absolutely no challenges to its dominance (if anything, electoral law chances since the last elections cycle means that United Russia is likely to actually increase its share of the Duma’s seats this year).
(7) Like it or not, but outright war with Maidanist Ukraine has been ruled out from the beginning, as the more perceptive analysts like Rostislav Ischenko have long recognized. If there was a time and a place for it, it was either in April 2014, or August 2014 at the very latest. Since then, the Ukrainian Army has gotten much stronger. It has been purged of its “Russophile” elements, and even though it has lost a substantial percentage of its remnant Soviet-era military capital in the war of attrition with the LDNR, it has more than made up for it with wartime XP gain and the banal fact of a quintupling in military spending as a percentage of GDP from 1% to 5%. This translates to an effective quadrupling in absolute military spending, even when accounting for Ukraine’s post-Maidan economic collapse. Russia can still crush Ukraine in a full-scale conventional conflict, and that will remain the case for the foreseeable future, but it will no longer be the happy cruise to the Dnepr that it would have been two years earlier.
By the same token, however, now is absolutely not the worst time for the Ukrainian Maidanists themselves to heat things up.
(1) The economic collapse has stabilized, but the economic miracle that Maidanists have been promising as soon as Ukraine was to be “freed” from Russo-Soviet kleptocracy has yet to happen. The economy remains in the doldrums, and along with it, Poroshenko’s approval ratings, which are currently lower than Viktor “Vegetable” Yanukovych’s absolute minimum while he was in power.
(2) Due to nationalist pressure, Ukraine is incapable of implementing Minsk II in principle. The longer it dithers, however, the more Western politicians lose interest in it, and even begin to talk up the possibility of restoring normal relations with Russia again – the new Tory government of Theresa May and her FM Boris Johnson in the UK are the most striking example to date, though similar sentiments have been expressed by people such as Italian PM Matteo Renzi and German FM Frank-Walter Steinmeier. Poroshenko’s failure to stem corruption is beginning to lose him the trust even of the most hardcore foreign svidomy activists. The Maidanist regime has even been unable to fulfill one of the Maidan’s most elementary demands, that of visa-free travel with the EU; they have only succeeded in making said “bezviz” an ironic meme to make fun of svidomy on Ukrainian discussion boards.
(3) And if all this isn’t enough there is also the trumpening presence of Donald Trump on the American electoral horizon – a man who has made it clear he has no quarrel with Russia, doesn’t see enabling Eastern Yuropeans to pursue their Russophobic vendettas as a good use of American resources, and recognizes the democratic choice of the Crimean people to be with Russia. Unsurprisingly, Maidanist politicians have been lining up to ritualistically denounce Trump as a “dangerous outcast” and thrice-accursed traitor to freedom/democracy/fluffy kittens/etc. A Trump victory will therefore be a huge ideological and PR blow against the Maidan regime, even if Trump’s apparent Russophilia turns out to be phantasmagorical and contents himself with leaving Obama’s realistic non-interventionist policy towards Ukraine intact.
A new war nicely takes care of all three factors.
(1) Permanent austerity can be ascribed to perpetual war, while providing a pretext for suppressing dissent from aspiring political challengers. In particular, the collapse of Poroshenko’s ratings has made Yulia Tymoshenko, a businesswoman-politician previously discredited by corruption allegations that went into the hundreds of millions of dollars, a credible political figure once again (if only because the rest of the Ukrainian elite is at least equally bankrupt in terms of legitimacy). Moreover, Tymoshenko has become the chief political patron of Nadia Savchenko, the “hero airwoman” who has lost the trust of the svidomy who had formerly adulated over her in record time by making overtures to the heads of the LDNR and calling for direct negotiations with them. This is not welcome news to the ruling Maidan elites.
(2) Limited war with Russia will make it much harder for the US to “abandon” its “ally” Ukraine, and will torpedo current trends towards normalizing relations between Russia and the West. Since Ukraine’s strategy boils down to the West “suffocating” Russia before Russia suffocates Ukraine, that would be a highly positive development that might even be worth the loss of extra territory to the LDNR. The Western media can be relied upon to blame Russia regardless of what happens, and by extension, the people they have associated with “enabling” Putinist imperialism – namely, Donald Trump (incidentally, this is why him getting rid of the competent-but-compromised Paul Manafort as head of his campaign is a regrettable but prudent strategic move).
(3) This brings us to Peter Lavelle’s notion of an “October Surprise”: Poroshenko is “Washington’s man in Kiev,” he is in a “position to offer some favors,” and considering that the Maidan regime was ultimately enabled by Hillary Clinton’s proteges at the State Department – that is, the Nuland gang – it’s not exactly a wild bet that he will deliver:
What is now needed and is probably being planned is a manufactured incident to make it look like Russia attacked and invaded Ukraine. The American public will be rallied with the usual mantra “something must be done” and the Trump campaign will be left flat footed, red faced, and denounced. Joe McCarthy will smile with glee from the grave.
At the beginning of 2016, I predicted a 30% chance that the war in Donbass will reignite sometime this year. However, this was done under the assumption that Trump only had a 40% chance of securing the Republican nomination, and before he had made his antipathy to the Pozocracy really explicit. So, unfortunately, I have to raise this to as high as 50% now.
And if that coin toss leads to renewed war, it’s a safe bet that Ukraine would be the main instigator.